Commentary

Staying ahead of the pack won't be easy for Evans

History has shown winning the UFC light heavyweight title is the easy part; it's staying champion that's proven so difficult. Newly crowned king Rashad Evans will have no shortage of challengers vying for his title, writes Franklin McNeil.

Originally Published: December 28, 2008
By Franklin McNeil | Special to ESPN.com

Rashad EvansRic Fogel for ESPN.comRashad Evans feels he has what it takes to stay on top of the light heavyweight competition.

LAS VEGAS -- Becoming champion is a goal every fighter in the UFC shares. Rashad Evans achieved that goal Saturday at UFC 92 with a third-round TKO of Forrest Griffin.

But if recent light heavyweight title fights are any indication, Evans' reign as champion could be brief. Evans, however, is a man on a mission. He plans to retain the title for a very long time.

To do so, he must stave off several of the best fighters in mixed martial arts. The light heavyweight talent pool is UFC's deepest, and its most recent titleholders have been unable to stay afloat long.

Griffin failed to make one successful defense of the belt. The man Griffin took the 205-pound title from, Quinton Jackson, held off just one challenger.

[+] EnlargeQuinton Jackson and Forrest Griffin
AP Photo/Laura RauchNeither Quinton Jackson, left, nor Forrest Griffin lasted long as light heavyweight champion.

In such a talent-rich division, holding the title has become extremely difficult. As long as Evans wears that belt, he will find every challenge to be a tough one.

He wouldn't want it any other way. Evans shrugs off the short stints experienced by Jackson and Griffin; he expects his title reign to last a long time.

Who's to disagree? His skill set measures up against anyone at 205 pounds. But top-level wrestling and boxing skills aren't what will keep Evans on top. His mindset should take care of that.

"It's because of my focus," Evans told ESPN.com. "Getting the title was important, but it's not the end of the story for me. It's just the beginning."

Evans takes no one for granted and trains out of a camp -- Jackson's Submission Fighting in Albuquerque, N.M. -- that always has him ready to succeed. The camp is loaded with top-level fighters.

"In Keith Jardine, I have the best training partners," Evans said. "He is one of the best fighters in the 205-pound weight class. Working with him and my other teammates, I'm sure they will keep me on my toes."

Teammates won't be the only ones keeping Evans on his toes. Early indications are his first title defense will come against a heavy hitter.

Undefeated Lyoto Machida's name is often mentioned in talk of title challenger, but he has a tough fight Jan. 31 against another unbeaten fighter, Thiago Silva.

The Machida-Silva winner could make a strong argument for a crack at Evans. Each has the talent to make life tough for the new titleholder in the cage, but that might not be enough to give Machida or Silva the fight.

For all their skill, Machida and Silva lack name recognition. It gets worse for Machida: Not only is he virtually unknown to casual MMA fans, his fighting style isn't pleasing to most hard-core observers.

Evans made his name by winning on big stages, against high-quality opposition and in front of millions of viewers. Love him or hate him, fight fans are familiar with Evans.

Add to the mix Evans' ability to knock people out, and the UFC has a fighter it can build huge bouts around. All the UFC needs is an opponent unafraid to slug it out with him.

UFC president Dana White doesn't have to search far to find the ideal opponent. The best man to challenge for the title, Jackson, fought minutes before Evans did Saturday night at MGM Grand Garden Arena.

By registering a first-round knockout of longtime nemesis Wanderlei Silva, Jackson proved the loss to Griffin did not diminish his will or ability to win. It was their third fight, with Silva winning the first two.

Taking into account his loss to Griffin, recent legal troubles and a new training camp, many doubted Jackson could avoid a third setback to Silva. But a counter left hook put all those doubts to rest.

Jackson caught Silva flush and dropped him flat on his back. With Silva sprawled on the canvas, Jackson landed three more punches before referee Yves Lavigne stepped in.

Silva remained motionless for several minutes before being taken to Valley Hospital. That devastating knockout likely sealed a title match for Jackson.

Styles make fights, and Evans-Jackson has knockout written all over it. The match already has White smiling.

[+] EnlargeQuinton Jackson
Jon Kopaloff/Getty ImagesQuinton Jackson, left, seems the most logical opponent for Rashad Evans.

"Right here, right now, Rampage Jackson makes the most sense to me," White said. "He's ready."

Jackson is physically ready, but part of him still wants a rematch with Griffin. To this day, Jackson believes he got a raw deal from the judges in July during UFC 86. He just can't get that loss out of his mind.

"I would like to get my title back," Jackson said. "That's why we do this, everybody wants to be champion; everybody wants to be the best.

"To be honest, I really want to fight Forrest. That's the fight that haunts me when I go to sleep. … I would like to get Forrest first, if I could."

Jackson might prefer a rematch with Griffin first, but he will sleep a lot easier if a title shot is offered to him. Besides, a rematch with Griffin will happen some time down the road.

Turning down fights isn't something Jackson is known to do. He will accept the title shot if an offer is made.

If Jackson needs something extra to increase his motivation, the champ is already calling his name.

When asked by ESPN.com which light heavyweight he'd most like to defend his title against, Evans answered: "Rampage."

Evans is eager to fight and defeat the best challengers in his division. The best challenger right now is Jackson.

The champ wants Jackson first, and it is very likely the champ will get what he wants.

Franklin McNeil covers boxing and mixed martial arts for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.